Whether it’s a chance meeting in an elevator or an unexpected image as you’re walking down the street, inspiration can strike in the weirdest ways. The Chicks share some of the life moments that created fictional ones.
I actually got my idea for Hollywood Homicide from a billboard. At the time I was basically broke and trying to figure out the next stage of my career. While at a stoplight, I looked up and saw this huge billboard with a woman’s face on it and a request offering a reward for information on her murder. And a thought popped into my head: I should try to solve this and get the reward money. It was followed by another thought: That is the dumbest idea ever. Then another thought: It would make a great inciting incident for a mystery novel though. And thus, the Detective By Day series was born.
I’ll share two real-life “aha” moments that wound up appearing in my latest mystery. It’s both a cliche and the truth that you don’t walk a lot in Los Angeles. One of the rare times I do is on visits to the hair stylist because I park on local streets to avoid paying the valet. (Hey, it’s six bucks plus tip. That adds up.) After an appointment last year, I was strolling back to my car when I happened to look up and see a giant balloon bouquet of red hearts floating away in the bright blue sky above me. It was such a striking image that I knew I would use it somewhere. And I did – in a Body on the Bayou pivotal moment.
Another moment of inspiration came from reading the Facebook posts of a few LSU friends and fans. I’ve never figured out if this happens only during football season or all the time, but I noticed a preponderance of “o” words spelled “eaux.” I.e. “Geaux, Tigers!” or “It’s sneauxing!” This quickly went from amusing to annoying. But it got me thinking, what if a bride-to-be insisted on an LSU-themed wedding? Which is exactly what Vanessa Fleer does in the aforementioned BOTB.
I’ve mentioned before that I met my senior sleuth, Dorothy, in an elevator at my parents’ over-55, active-living residential community. (They don’t say “retirement community” anymore in Florida.) The woman was breathlessly trying to put herself together at the last minute for one of those formal 5 pm dinners in the main building. “Appearances are everything, you know,” she told me with a wink, as she stepped out and I experienced the horrible realization of, “Uh oh. It never gets easier?” I spent a lot of time at the pool, where I got to eavesdrop on everyone, and received more than a few dirty looks, so I knew just how my younger sleuth, Summer, would feel as an outsider. But I still needed my first victim. That problem was solved the minute my mom and I walked into her doctor’s super-ornate (think Trump Tower) waiting room and were greeted by a snippy receptionist in pearls and a white linen suit. I thought I had the perfect mark until we were ushered into the lair of the overly-charming doctor, who literally caused his elderly patients to swoon (and then probably billed them for it). One flash of a ruby pinky ring and, well, that lil’ ol’ plot just fell smack into place.
Back when writing a mystery novel was just the tiniest glimmer of an idea in the back of my mind, I had a fully-formed muse drop right into my lap. I got a call from an editor at Chronicle Books asking if I’d like to ghostwrite a book on destination weddings—to which my answer was an enthusiastic YES! While the wedding planner I was working with was telling me about her job, two thoughts occurred to me: 1) she might just be the luckiest person I’d ever met, and 2) her job was the perfect setup for a murder mystery! Here she was, flying off to foreign countries with people she barely knew, and if anything went wrong, everyone looked to her to fix things. I left our initial meeting with two books to write: the nonfiction guide and the mystery novel version!
When my husband interviewed for the job here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we picked up the local daily newspaper to get a feel for the area. We were pleasantly surprised, and somewhat amused, by the police reports. Coming from the Memphis area, a much bigger city with a big city crime rate to match, we were pleased to find Marquette’s police blotter didn’t include any car jackings, drive-by shootings or armed robberies. In fact, the biggest “crimes” listed that day were a complaint about a barking dog and a guy who was discovered passed out drunk in a porta-potty at the local music festival. I think he was cited for public intoxication. My twisted mystery writer’s mind immediately started extrapolating, “What if the guy was discovered dead instead of drunk? How was he killed? How would the person who discovered him react? I tucked this thought away for another day. An incident involving a dead body in a porta-potty may or may not occur in One Fete in the Grave, which comes out in May. Just sayin’.
When the idea came for The Semester of Our Discontent, I was in grad school, struggling with a term paper that was due the next day, full of despair and determination in equal amounts. As I tried to type up my half-formed ideas in a way that sounded like I knew what I was talking about, I suddenly thought of something else altogether: a plot in which a new professor discovers…um…something (edited for non-spoiler-ing). Scribbled it in my journal, then went back to the paper, which I did manage to finish at dawn and submit on time! Didn’t start writing the novel until years later, but from that point on, it was assembling itself in the back of my mind. And there were moments when things bubbled up unexpectedly. Like at one Thanksgiving dinner when I announced for no apparent reason that Stonedale University would be the name of my school. And in response to the blank looks, I had to add, wishing I could slide under the table and hide, “In that mystery I haven’t written yet.”
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